April 20, 2011

A New Breed of Enterprising Journalists

by J. Max Robins

What can I say--I'm bullish about the future of journalism. I know the newspaper and TV news industries face serious challenges, but I also see inspiring signs of innovation and entrepreneurship in journalism that make me optimistic. One of those signs came this week, with news of the Pulitzer awarded to the nonprofit investigative reporting organization ProPublica--"the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to an online news organization," noted ProPublica's Paul Steiger.

I also saw these encouraging signs recently at my alma mater, Columbia University School of Journalism, where Sree Sreenivasan had organized a forum with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. As dean of student affairs and a professor of digital media, Sree has been instrumental in bringing the often-hidebound J school boldly into the present. Last month, he participated in our Media Council Dialogue on the fourth estate and digital democracy, and joined others in the room--including Jeff Jarvis, Andrew Rasiej, and Josh Marshall--in expressing optimism about the role of digital innovation in creating new journalistic institutions.

Sree's timing in inviting Dorsey was prescient. The guest of honor was enjoying his Steve Jobs moment just the day before his triumphant return to Twitter had been made public. Revealingly, when asked about Twitter's biggest challenge, Dorsey said it was to make sure that there is a shared vision and a supportive culture within the company so the team can compete in the marketplace, not with one another. That was the message from the guy who was pushed out and then invited back to reignite an operation in a crucial period going from red-hot start-up to finding a way to monetize a social network that sees "close to 500,000 accounts created every day." Dorsey's talk seemed more in line for a group of business grad students, than a bunch of aspiring journos. And it was clear this crowd didn't consider "monetization" a dirty word.

About 150 people were there, primarily students; a live Twitter feed was up on a screen, and the assembled were tweeting up a storm, in full embrace of social media as an essential reporting tool. Dorsey, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal's Julia Angwin, was talking with clarity and passion about both Twitter and his latest start-up Square, a smartphone plug-in and downloadable app that enables your iPhone or Android to process credit card transactions.

Many in the audience asked obligatory questions you would expect from journalism students, like queries on the influence of Twitter and Facebook in the uprisings shaking the Middle East. (Dorsey responded that they were tools that had been wisely used but that the bravery of a lot of people was the key factor.) But tellingly, there were as many or more questions asked about Square than those about Twitter. The tone was much different from the J school I remember.

These students wanted to know about raising money, what made a successful start-up, what to be wary of in the digital minefield. Dorsey gave plenty of encouragement to the students. The message was that so much of what has driven Dorsey's success -- a passion to connect people and give them the tools to better understand and traverse a complicated world -- was akin to the passion the best journalists have to put their labors toward pretty much the same thing.

Clearly, what I witnessed during Dorsey's visit to Columbia signals an important positive change underway in journalism education. Of course, many of the values that Columbia and other journalism programs teach still apply; accuracy, clarity, and fairness are still as essential as ever, perhaps more so in our 24/7-perpetual-news-cycle universe. But that's not enough to sustain a career in journalism in a post-digital-revolution world.

Sree and his colleague Emily Bell, formerly of The Guardian, get it at Columbia, as do Jarvis at CUNY, and Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky at NYU. Journalism schools must be laboratories of innovation, where students are encouraged to embrace technology and not fear their inner entrepreneurs.

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